By Christopher Thomas
Upon entering Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Courtyard Theatre, my two favorite guests, aged 4 and 7 years old, were immediately greeted and crowned as fellow princesses before being shown their seats.
As the music began, they were drawn from the educational and kid-friendly materials and images in the playbill to the image of the little mermaid reaching out toward them above a sea of blue water yearning to be part of their world. The eyes of the two princesses next to me grew large as they settled in for a 75-minute adventure under the sea.
CST’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid delightfully captures the essence of the classic animated Disney tale. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, the musical follows Ariel, a young mermaid that longs for a life beyond the sea. Over the course of her adventure, she defies her father King Triton, makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula and ultimately finds her home on land and happiness with the handsome Prince Eric.
With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater and book by Doug Wright, Disney’s The Little Mermaid features favorite songs including “Part of Your World,” “Kiss The Girl” and the Academy Award-winning “Under The Sea.” More information may be found here.
In her Chicago Shakespeare debut, Rachel Eskenazi-Gold gives voice to the independent and determined Ariel. And oh what a voice it is! Eskanazi-Gold triumphs in depicting this central character, who pulls in audiences old and young alike with her beautiful tone and charismatic energy. Equally impressive is three-time Jeff Award winner Rebecca Finnegan as Ursula, whose masterful prowess on the stage evokes every ounce of delicious wickedness that audiences expect from this Disney villain. My seven year old princess even remarked to me that “she sounds just like the movie, papa! Actually, even better!”
The rest of the Mermaid cast all embody the spirits of the animated characters they are based on, offering audiences enjoyable performances by hard-working, exceptional performers such as Matthew Jones as Triton, Brandon Springman as Eric, Joseph Anthony Byrd as Sebastian, and the wonderful young Matthew Uzarraga as Flounder.
In the opening sequence, celebrated Chicago musical theatre director Rachel Rockwell introduces Ariel through simple storytelling, using silky blue fabric to represent the turbulent sea as actors billow the fabric back and forth. As only the top-half of Ariel emerges above the fabric through an artfully placed opening in the fabric, Rockwell indulges audience with enough visual aesthetics to keep the audience interested yet also invites the audience to play make-believe as the story begins to unfold. I was hooked, and evidently so were my princess daughters, who later recreated the entire scene with their blue bedspread upon returning home that night.
Moreover, Rockwell’s direction is fast-paced, which is welcomed for this short production. The script itself allows the possibility that younger audience members could get lost within the plot, which at times centers on internal struggles more so than conflicts centered around action. In order to sustain interest, CST employs the incredible talents of Lighting Designer Yael Lubetzky, Projection Designer Shawn Sagady, and Puppet Designer Chelsea Warren to transform the stage into an underwater wonderland. A particular special note should be made of the artistic projections, which move the story along—literally—and vividly anchor the production in its various locations.
Costume Designer Theresa Ham imaginatively ties together elements of fantasy, the sea, and customary formal fashions to create the costume pieces. Children and adults similarly delight in the creative choices Ham made to bring to life these characters and their anthropomorphic costumes. Sebastian shines in his bright red tuxedo blazer, affixed with tuxedo tails whose sewing pattern and shape could only signify a crab’s legs. Flounder is fit with sea-blue suspenders that help hold up his foam guppy fin against a palate of bright yellow. As if his mohawk and pre-teen persona aren’t cute enough, he is the only member of the cast who gets to glide around stage on a set of “wheelies.”
Equally impressive are the mermaids and King Triton, whose tails cleverly cover the human feet in such ways that audiences can imagine these underwater creatures at their best. Furthermore, Melissa Veal once again proves her prowess in makeup and wig design, helping catapult the show into the imaginative sphere required for this type of production. The wigs for the show are top-notch, creating a larger than life personality that matches their overly animated styles reminiscent of the Disney film. Overall, the look of the show helps place each of the characters, from Ariel to Urusla, into the fantastical world any Mermaid-loving fan would expect.
This 75-minute production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is best enjoyed by ages 5 and up and runs through August 16 in CST’s Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. Tickets are $22-$34 with special discounts available for groups of 10 or more. All patrons receive a 40% parking discount at Navy Pier garages. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here or call 312.595.5600.